Lady luck

Martha Montiforte was making do before Katrina; the storm left her scraping. For her, the casino is a perfect refuge from the world.

Published December 29, 2005

BILOXI, Miss. - There are two kinds of luck on Caillavet Street: the kind you go looking for, and the kind you're born with.

The first can sometimes be found inside the Imperial Palace casino, a sand-colored barge hanging over the blue mirror of Biloxi's Back Bay.

Across the street, a rougher kind of luck holds sway. Someone's Dolly Parton record cover lies bleached and swollen near an empty bottle of blackberry brandy and a middle-age widow's alphabetized coupons for Mazola cooking spray, pork sausage and Tylenol Gel Caps. Screens hang from window frames like sheared-off lace and roofs are crushed in like faces after a street fight. The only steady structure on the west side of this block of Caillavet is the FEMA trailer where Martha Montiforte lives.

"Thing I like about the Imperial Palace, I can walk across the street if I feel like it and I can crawl home if I have to," said Martha, a 51-year-old school nutritionist. "I'm more of a hot chocolate drinker or a Coke drinker, but I guarantee you when they open I'm gonna be me a Crown and Seven drinker. There's somethin' humbling about seeing your underwear in the middle of the yard with a crane picking it up."

When the Imperial Palace, now known officially as the IP, became the first casino in this gambling city to start up again last Thursday, Martha brushed on black mascara in her tiny trailer and crossed the street to stand in line.

"Nineteen-hundred machines, just beggin' for my money, just beggin' for it," she said. "If I can find a penny machine, I'll be okay."

There were people on oxygen and people smoking Marlboros, guys in cowboy hats, guys in wheelchairs and a man in a baseball cap that said "God in Control." There was a middle school English teacher who didn't want her face on TV and a retired couple from Waveland, Miss., whose dog drowned and a 48-year-old woman raising three grandchildren in a FEMA trailer.

They stood at the intersection of two worlds. In one, cheerleading pompoms still hung from trees, people with mortgages lived in tents and you had to call ahead to get a table at Chili's.

In the other, water never rose and wind never blew. A cocktail waitress named Charity would bring you a drink and call you sweetie, and a finger-tap at a slot machine would conjure an image reassuringly like the one before and the one after, on to infinity, or as long as your money held out.

Along the tattered Gulf Coast after Katrina, the masterwork of human artifice that was the casino had come to seem a perfect refuge from the natural world, and gambling the only salve to the economic wounds inflicted by the storm. People looked to the casinos, as they had before, to resuscitate a dying city.

"Come walk a mile in these shoes and then you tell me not to go in there and enjoy myself and escape from this friggin' reality that we have," said Martha. She started to cry. "You can't just be pushed down and pushed down and pushed down with no daylight in your life. You need something to look forward to."

She sidled up to the front, near the bright lights and TV cameras, where the mayor and the casino manager waited. Nine a.m. passed, then 10. Cocktail waitresses, shivering in gold spaghetti straps, handed out bottled water.

Someone shouted: "What is this, a FEMA line?"

As of mid December, FEMA had given out nearly $1-billion in Mississippi, including more than $340-million in Harrison County, which includes Biloxi, Gulfport and Pass Christian. Now some of that aid, in crisp twenties and crumpled dollars carefully flattened over denim-clad knees, would be fed into machines with names like Lucky 7 and Reel 'Em In.

When the metal barge doors finally slid open, people ran to the slots. Martha crossed the threshold, stepping purposefully in heeled boots from the distribution center. She passed Magic Forest and Easter Island, Texas Tea and Arabian Nights, and found a chair in front of a nickel slot called Life of Luxury.

She fed in two 10s, hit the button and watched red sports cars, cabin cruisers and gold coins flash across the screen. She had 200 credits, then 370, then 116, then five. She shook her head.

"That was that," she said. "How long that take me? Five minutes?"

Martha had already learned that minutes were all it took to slide from the middle of the economic scale to the bottom.

"You go to college, get a degree, get a good job," she said, "and then Katrina comes along, that b----, she takes it all."

* * *

Martha had started working as a cafeteria lady at a Catholic school when her kids were small. She was Greek, the daughter of a Biloxi shrimper, and she and her firefighter husband shrimped for extra money. Sometimes at restaurants, they would tell the waitress it was their kids' birthday to get free dessert.

"We weren't in the food stamp line by no means, but we took one vacation a year, paid our bills, a very get-by type of existence," she said. "Like most of America: not the finest of everything, not the worst of everything."

When her marriage ended, she was a secretary making $12,000 a year. She persuaded her ex-husband to keep paying on the little rental house they owned across the street from the casino so she would have somewhere to live while she went back to school. Twenty-five thousand dollars in loans later, she got a bachelor's degree and a shot at her own modest version of the American dream.

By the time Katrina hit, she was earning a solidly middle-class salary, but it would take a full year's pay to make good on her student loans and the mortgage on her house.

She tore down what was left of the house a few weeks after the storm. Floodwater took the curls from her son's first haircut and the pictures from the day her daughter was born and her red Mustang convertible, which was parked on the first floor of the casino garage. All she salvaged out of the house was a crab-picking knife, a rosary and a bottle of Victoria's Secret perfume.

The Red Cross gave her $360. FEMA gave her the trailer and $4,300, which just about covered the cost of knocking down the house, carting in dirt and buying sheets, towels and pots and pans. Like many, she didn't have flood insurance. She said she was told she didn't need it.

She hadn't missed a paycheck, yet she was starting over with nothing but a burdensome debt she knew she couldn't pay off.

"The good Lord never gives you more than you can handle," she said. "But I think sometimes he forgets it's me down here."

She had lived her whole life in Biloxi and was determined to stay. People like her weren't just grieving material losses; they were grappling with the destruction of personal history, of any solid links to the past.

"I went around this bay right here, and I got to Oak and took a right and it kind of took my breath away, seeing all them houses gone," she said. "And I turned left onto Howard and there was nothing. This was the neighborhood, our church, where I grew up. The hall where my son had his wedding reception... I cried the whole time I was down there. I was in a bad funk for three days. Every time somebody looked at me, I'd cry."

She drove those streets the day before the casino opened in a new red Trailblazer, courtesy of State Farm. She drove past the docks where Vietnamese shrimp boats floated behind the battered Boomtown casino. She passed the lot scattered with twisted metal that used to be an oyster factory and her ex-mother-in-law's house lying splintered on someone else's land.

On Bay View Avenue, she slowed in front of the brick house with white columns and boarded-up windows where Mississippi state Sen. Tommy Gollott lived.

"That's what you call a mansion," she said. "I bet he thinks he's somebody."

Now a trailer was parked on the senator's lawn. On Oak Street, someone had spray-painted "Hell No, I Won't Go" on a house-front. A new state law allowed gambling on land, and people worried about speculators buying up property.

Martha drove down to the beach. Before the storm, Biloxi had 10 casinos. Not far from the chain-link fence where paper cups spelled out JESUS LOVES YOU, the Palace rose from a trash-strewn field like a golden mirage. The Casino Magic barge had washed across six lanes of Highway 90 and lay on the hillside like the carcass of a beached whale, its twisted metal ribs exposed, oozing clumps of insulation.

As she passed the remnants of Econo-Lodge and Waffle House and the ruined home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, Martha reflected on the nature of luck. By the time she was 12, her sister had been murdered and her mother was dead, yet she had raised two children, she had her health, she still spoke to her ex-husband. She had lost everything, but she had survived the hurricane.

She thought about luck as she passed FEMA trailers with extensions that opened up several feet of space in the center. She wanted one like those so her daughter and 4-month-old granddaughter could move in with her. In her narrow trailer, there was no place for a crib.

"Lookit, that's like a two-story," she said. "They must know somebody. That's terrible when you're jealous of somebody's FEMA trailer. That's pitiful. Now you know you're at the bottom of the barrel."

* * *

In the ringing, smoky depths of the IP casino last week, Willie J. Woods, a 57-year-old factory repairman, said he didn't care about luck.

He waited patiently for a seat in front of a slot machine called Mr. Cashman. He had lost his house near Mobile, and today he was down to $16.90 from the $40 he'd started with.

"Some people are blessed with good fortune and some aren't," he said. "But we all God's children."

When the casino got too crowded, Martha retreated to her trailer.

At dusk, she put on lipstick, sprayed her hair and crossed the street again to meet her boyfriend at the casino's Katrina Bar, where the FEMA guys drank after the storm. Martha ordered a white zinfandel. Her boyfriend, a casino bartender named Joey Brown, drank chardonnay.

Soon she felt like gambling again. She had $50 in one pocket and $100 in the other. She and Joey threaded their way through the casino until she found a seat in front of Lucky Larry's Lobster Mania.

"Joey Brown, don't you leave me!"

"Just win somethin' honey," he said.

She put in $40 and cashed out $45. They carried their wineglasses into the parking lot like partygoers stepping onto the balcony for air.

The night was blue and cold. Giant spotlights crisscrossed the casino buildings, and Joey wondered if the particles of light would reach the ends of the universe. Martha looked up at the blue neon hotel tower, the windows glowing gold.

"It has not been lit up like this," she said. Her eyes filled with tears that didn't fall. She said it felt like coming home.

Vanessa Gezari can be reached at 727-893-8803 or vgezari@sptimes.com


Biloxi is in Harrison County, one of the coastal counties in Mississippi hardest hit by Katrina.

Katrina-related deaths: 95

Paid insurance claims (as of Dec. 20): $1.1-billion paid on 72,000 claims

Debris collected: 1.33-million cubic yards.

Estimated debris remaining: 1.42-million cubic yards

Sources: Times wires; Harrison County Emergency Management Agency; Mississippi Insurance Department; Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Compiled by Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan